Sweet 'n' Jewcy - the relaunched Jewish Film Festival Berlin and Brandenburg

The Jewish Film Festival has new directors. A conversation with Andreas Stein and Lea Wohl von Haselberg.

Jewish Film Festival Berlin & Brandenburg

Berlin-The 27th iteration of the Jewish Film Festival Berlin and Brandenburg kicks of on Thursday, 12 August. The fest has been bringing filmmakers to Germany since 1995, but this year its 27th edition will take place under the aegis of new directors for the first time since its conception. Doreen Goethe and Andreas Stein have taken on a cultural institution which was lovingly nurtured by Nicola Galliner for over two decades. Accompanied by the gaudy artwork of Berlin artist Esra Rotthoff, the 2021 festival's motto is "Sweet 'n' Jewcy". The new leadership and a new five-member programme collective - which includes Lea Wohl von Haselberg - have selected a total of 42 features, documentaries and shorts. Berliner Zeitung caught up with two of the organisers.

After 26 years of JFFB, what changes can we expect this year?

LEA WOHL VON HASELBERG: Of course we would like to give the festival a new touch. I think the change will come from the fact that it is resting on several shoulders for the first time. That will make it even more polyphonic and diverse. But not because it wasn't in the 26 years before. The programme collective means that more people with different professional and biographical perspectives are working together. Multiperspectival in the sense that we combine German, Jewish, Jewish-Israeli and Jewish-German perspectives.

ANDREAS STEIN: We are incredibly grateful to Nicola Galliner because 26 years ago she founded a festival with a theme that didn't make it easy for her to get something off the ground. And above all, to keep it up for 26 years. We are now very lucky to be able to build on this foundation. We don't see ourselves, as Lea has already rightly said, as "administrators". But we don't want to smash everything up either, but rather to make an even more multifaceted festival on this excellent basis in the future, which will perhaps gain even greater international renown. In 2021, unfortunately, we are still in the situation of not being able to put on everything we would have liked to. However, with the short preparation time and with this great team, we'll be presenting a very exciting festival.

WOHL VON HASELBERG: There is one thing we must not forget: the Jewish communities in Berlin have changed a lot in the last two decades. Of course we want international renown. But in the coming years we will be able to think about completely different approaches to Jewish life, Jewish partnership and Jewish initiatives in Germany. There is an incredible amount of potential in that.

Lea, what is Jewish film?

WOHL VON HASELBERG: The narrowest definition we have to agree on is that Jewish film is defined at its core by films about Jewish themes. Of course, not all Jewish filmmakers make Jewish films. And at the same time, Jewish protagonists behind and in front of the camera are enormously important. In the end, these are works that offer occasions for conversation about the Jewish present and perspective. Above all, however, it is art that wants to be taken seriously in its own right, without being reduced to Jewishness.

And what is Jewish film for German audiences?

WOHL VON HASELBERG: Jewish film is enormously context-dependent. In Israel, the USA, Warsaw or Buenos Aires it is something completely different than in Berlin. When you show the same films to a different audience, the context is always different. And, of course, 75 years after the Shoah, we in Germany are still dealing with a field of tension in which we operate and in which we create a festival programme. We must continue to ask ourselves how many Shoah films we want to show and how many are too many.

What distinguishes the preparation of a Jewish film festival from your experience in organising other film events, such as the Cottbus Film Festival?

STEIN: When we decided to organise a Jewish film festival, we had thematic intersections with the Cottbus Film Festival as a festival of Eastern European film. But fundamentally, we're entering a completely different world. Therefore, the big challenges were the theme and the change from a small city like Cottbus to Berlin and Potsdam, with a catchment audience of about 5 million people. This is not comparable to what we have planned so far. Although my team and I have a lot of festival experience, this is a completely new baby.

Berlin-based artist Esra Rotthoff was responsible for the impressive artwork for the third year in a row. This year, under the motto "Sweet 'n' Jewcy", she has interpreted the proverbial sweet symbolism of the Jewish New Year, Rosh ha-Shanah (literally "head of the year") in a gaudy and provocatively sexy way. Has the JFBB been reborn?

STEIN: Actually, that was the idea we had together with Esra for the 2021 festival. We wanted to approach the Jewish New Year from two directions. On the one hand, it illuminates the aspect that new people are making something new out of what already exists. On the other hand, it's a new beginning after one and a half years of corona. It's as if to say: We want a colourful life and want to enrich the Berlin-Brandenburg metropolitan region with our culture.

The festival kicks off with Shiva Baby, a great American-Canadian comedy starring a bisexual Jewish woman. Are you opening with a comedy on purpose?

WOHL VON HASELBERG: We have a wide range of different feature films and documentaries with very different tonalities. However, we agreed from the beginning that the festival should open with a sense of fun and lightness. Especially this year, which is a new beginning in two ways. And I believe that we all deserve something joyful in 2021. 

STEIN: Choosing the opening film is always a challenge because it is shown to an audience that is not the normal festival audience. In other words, the broad masses. Also, ideally, you always open a festival with a jaw-dropping moment. Shiva Baby provides that. It's what we want to show: multi-faceted, modern Jewish life.

Lea, you've lectured about the problems in the representation of Jewish topics in German discourse. What are they?

WOHL VON HASELBERG: We're in a phase of upheaval. Images of Jewish life in all audiovisual media are becoming more diverse at the moment. This also applies to German-Jewish discourse and German-Jewish communities. They're also developing and becoming more diverse. Through more specific audiences that are interested in certain topics, a greater polyphony is emerging that was not even possible in the 1980s. Before this upheaval, Jewish issues were very much dealt with in terms of German self-understanding, longing and desire. We discussed this question a lot in the programme collective: What do we want to show? How do we programme against prevalent images?

Andreas, is it perhaps even an advantage for you to be the director of the JFBB as a non-Jew?

STEIN: It has advantages and disadvantages. As a non-Jew, I harbour exactly the same stereotypes, desires and covetousness that Lea was talking about. I think that's the disadvantage, because you deal with the whole issue differently. Guilt, atonement and the culture of remembrance are topics that have a massive impact on us as non-Jews. We sometimes deal with issues more sensitively or insensitively than perhaps Jews would. When it comes to topics that we hardly dare to address, Jews reply: "Why? It's not a problem!" And then there are situations in which we put our foot in our mouth out of naivety. I'm all the more grateful that I have such great people around me, like Lea, Arkadij Khaet and Amos Geva, who advise us extremely well. Without them, no one would buy it. A Jewish film festival without a Jewish perspective is not authentic.

Lea, what is the idea behind the programme collective that is curating the films for the JFBB for the first time this year?

WOHL VON HASELBERG: I already said that Jewish discourse is in a state of upheaval on many levels. This is reflected in our programme collective. We have very different Jewish biographies and self-understandings - with Israeli, post-Soviet and West German perspectives. But even more relevant is that we are all film professionals, from different fields. There are so many of us, that a professionalisation automatically sets in. It's a collective of film professionals, not cultural professionals. We sometimes struggled to discuss not only the films but also the films within the sphere of resonance. And there, with our individual perspectives, we often had different opinions. However, we agreed that we wanted to have films in the programme that offer provokation.

What impression should remain once JFBB 2021 is over in four weeks?

STEIN: Basically, it would be great if the media would send out a big thank you to Nicola Galliner, because she put on a really great festival for 26 years. Of course, I would also be happy if there was recognition that the new organisers were able to make the festival even more special. And that we are on the right track.

WOHL VON HASELBERG: If the journalists were looking forward to the coming festival as much as we were, then a lot would be gained. And if everyone, by which I mean media and film professionals and our audience, is curious about what is to come - that would be very, very cool.

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